On the Internet – A Coming of Age Story

As I type this, I am not on the Internet. I can’t connect because the ridiculous (it was October 29th, people! Unacceptable!) storm that just ripped through the Northeast knocked out my cable. Now, this is obviously an extremely minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things, but it’s amazing how disoriented and disconnected I feel without the familiar presence of the knowledge that I can contact thousands of people whenever I want, or confirm whatever miscellany pops into my head.

Is it safe to spill half a pot of water down into the burner of an electric stove? The Internet will know! Exactly how many movies did that stoner guy from Clueless play the exact same character in in the ’90s? To IMDb! How do you make scallion pancakes? Oh, well, in that case, is there an easier way to make scallion pancakes? The Internet knows the answer for just about everything, and even if your questions don’t have an accessible answer (Why am I so lonely? What should I do with my life? Is the Arrested Development movie going to be a huge disappointment?) the Internet is perfectly happy to provide you with people who will commiserate, offer electronic hugs, and enable every single one of your impulses to order a tuna melt from that place that delivers pints of Ben and Jerry’s and just maybe decide that you definitely need some Phish Food to go with it.

The number of times per day that I speak or type the phrase, “on the Internet” has necessitated its own tag on my personal blog, and its own particular tone and matching slight eye roll in my personal speech. You know, so that people don’t think I’m one of those people who only talk about things that happen “on the Internet,” or things that they saw “on the Internet,” or people that they know “on the Internet.” But secretly, I am totally one of those people.

I cut my Internet teeth, like many other magnificent Internet bitches I’ve known, trolling for predators in teen chat rooms in the early 2000s. Internet education at the time was mostly centered on making sure we didn’t all gather up our belongings and cross state lines to get molested by creepy old men. It was a classroom tool for Very Special Lessons, but largely still regarded as a thing to be feared by parents, educators, and other Concerned Parties. My parents stationed our Internet-connected desktop in the middle of our living room, as recommended by Concerned Parties, so that they could supervise our online activities. One afternoon, my father caught me at one of my favorite activities: picking grammar fights with creeps in MSN chat rooms. Of course, this is an obnoxious activity; after all, what are chat rooms for but being creepy? However, it is my belief that any person worth knowing was horribly obnoxious and precocious as an early adolescent. He must have stood behind me and watched for at least half an hour and, once I figured out that I wasn’t getting in trouble, I turned it on full blast. I am certain that it was on this day that my dad shed his concerns not only about my ability to handle myself on the Internet, but in the rest of my life as well.

Recently, in unscientific polling among Persephone friends and other Internet lady personalities of note, I have discovered that this is a fairly common history. The anonymity of the Internet provided both creepy jerks and budding bitches, and of course I mean that in the best possible sense, the ability to shed any pretense of social graces. We, the clever, bookish budding women of the new millennium, reveled in the newfound knowledge of our own ability to both take it and dish it out from the comfort of our parents’ living rooms and our ineptly firewalled school libraries. What we didn’t yet have the emotional wherewithal to say to the creepy jerks in our classrooms, in our school books, in our daily lives, we instead spewed at strangers trying to find out if we were wearing a school uniform (thanks for that one, Britney Spears!). It was on the Internet that I learned that I can think faster, keep calmer, and bite back harder than anyone screaming that I was a stupid slut for rejecting their advances. It was on the Internet that I learned that inherent underestimations of my strength and intelligence can be some of my greatest assets. Of course, it’s easy to dismiss these silly chat room battles as fake. After all, it was only on the Internet.

Moving forward to my first year of college, it was on the Internet that I learned how to find help and support in unlikely places. Isolation, internalization, and years of unresolved mental health issues bubbled to my emotional surface my freshman year.  Suddenly unable to remember how to speak normal words, or make normal facial expressions, or so it felt, I retreated to my LiveJournal to express the things that I could only hint at in face-to-face conversations: that I had stopped eating, that I pondered the relative merits of slipping off the bridge I crossed on my way to work every day, that I felt completely incapable of being alone with my own thoughts for even a moment because I felt like my brain was constantly attempting to slip conceptual tendrils down my throat and strangle me. It was there that I became involved with another dreaded scourge of the Concerned Parties that be: the “pro-anas.”

LiveJournal was, at the time and I’m sure it still exists in places today, the host to one of the largest communities of “pro-anorexia” bloggers on the Internet. And to some extent its name implies exactly what it was, which was girls, almost exclusively girls and women, with eating disorders who were attempting to live with them, not seeking treatment, and in some cases promoting their disease as a lifestyle choice. Now, obviously, to any sane person that sounds like a terrible thing. However, during a time in my life when the one feeling overpowering all of my other thoughts and feelings both rational and irrational was that of being alone, it was exactly what I needed. I didn’t have anyone I could face admitting to in person that I had a problem, that I was willfully destroying myself. I felt weak, and scared, and crazy, unable to trust my own judgment or my own body, with which I felt I was at constant war. The only way I was able to create a life for myself outside of my battles with my body was to engage anonymously, and out of body, with people for whom these struggles were taken as a given. In a community where everyone is living the same reality, the reality that automatically distances and distorts one’s interactions with the perceived “normal” people of the world, we felt free to be ourselves.

It was in these communities that I learned how to reach out to help people I could not physically touch, and how to express to people how I felt about who they are as people, the qualities and beauty that even healthy people cannot always see in themselves. I learned how to comfort someone with only words, and how to read into the defenses that people throw up, even in safe spaces, to guess at what is behind their humor or their anger or their pride at their own self-destruction. On the Internet, I learned that an organization’s public relations are only as strong as its worst behaved member. We formed sub-communities dedicated to self-policing. We organized to try to distinguish between the sharing of experiences and the sharing of destructive practices. On the Internet, I learned how to be a good example, how to be an empathetic leader, and how to tailor my language in ways to express a point of contention without being hurtful.

Eventually, I reached a point where I knew that in order to continue to get and be healthy I needed to disconnect from the place I associated with my most shameful acts and experiences. I walked away from the communities I had helped build, and that had been my home on the Internet. I lost touch with some of the people I loved most in the world, and who had been there for me when I was unable to reach out to anyone on the outside. It’s still painful to think about severing those connections, but it shouldn’t be because those relationships only existed on the Internet, right?

My emotional base during this time was shifting from one of sadness and isolation to anger at the way my friends felt about themselves and the way women’s mental health is portrayed and betrayed in public perception. I had no less need to put words into the world than I did when I started my LiveJournal, but I was becoming less interested in discussing my personal experiences and more interested in thinking and writing about systemic experiences that my friends and I had. Understandably, I was drawn to feminist blogging communities and websites, most specifically Jezebel.com, which had enough celebrity gossip to help me with the continuing issue of turning my brain off.

On the Internet, I learned about problems and experiences greater than my own. Jezebel, and the people I “met” in the commenting community there, directed me to other, more serious feminist websites. I became more interested and involved with anti-racism. Having dropped out of school to deal with my health, I relearned on the Internet that I was smart, that I was able to engage with abstract concepts and issues, and educate myself about the passions that other feminists shared with me. On the Internet, I learned how to turn online friendships into in-person friendships.

On the Internet I learned that while your connection to a community based in a certain place, or website, can dissolve, your connections to the people who drew you there in the first place can remain intact. I followed the Great Jezebel Exodus to Tumblr, where my community of feminists expanded to include friends passionate about issues regarding the environment, labor, trade, art, and a myriad of other values I didn’t necessarily know I shared. On the Internet, I learned how to take my words and values from the safe spaces I had occupied and into my everyday conversations. On the Internet, I learned how to pick my battles and that some people are “tables,” who aren’t worth engaging.

The rest, of course, is history you know. On Tumblr, I discovered Persephone and became a member of this wonderful community of bookish, clever people. On the Internet, I learned to focus my anger and use it to develop longer, more coherent writing on the issues I care about.

Recently, due mainly to the host of issues surrounding Occupy Wall Street and its global progeny, I have done a lot of thinking about the history of my own activism and the impact of my thinking, writing, and speaking. A lot of the conclusions I’ve come to have been negative, and based upon the twinge of a feeling that nothing I have done has really accomplished anything because so much of my life has been intangible–merely words sent out into the abyss of the Internet. Self-doubt is still a thing that I struggle with, and, naturally, speak about at great length on the Internet. However, it is on the Internet that I have learned to share the load, and that the parts that we all play in the discussion are what creates the discussion. On the Internet, I have realized that words propel actions ranging from personal growth and discovering your own strengths, to the organization of movements and the dissemination of information about injustice and resistance. On the Internet, I have learned that the relationships we build by putting bits of data and bits of ourselves out into the universe are just as important as the relationships we build in our “real” lives.

On the Internet, I learned that our lives on the Internet are our real lives.

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5 Comments On the Internet – A Coming of Age Story

  1. Avatar of Lucy WoodhullLucy Woodhull

    I have the internet to thank for being a writer.  The amazing positive reinforcement I got here made me think, “Gee, maybe I’m funny.  I could write stuff!”

    Awesome piece!

  2. Avatar of Ailanthus-altissimaAilanthus-altissima

    Yeah, there is no one “pick six” emotion box that can contain how I feel about this post. It’s wonderful, Kels. The internet is a very real place, albeit without anything more physically tangible than the computer screen and keyboard.

    A few days ago, I lost internet access due to a local outage and while it wasn’t long enough to motivate a longer exploration into my connections with other people, it made me realize that the internet allows me to not have the answers because I know where I can get the answers to questions with simple ones (like, is the guest voice on the Simpsons Jenna’s mom on 30 Rock?) to more complex problems (what do I do when something terrible is happening). It’s an anchor? source of security? Something in between? that can be tapped into any time any where.

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